Reflections on the 2022 Global Rights Index From the Perspective of the Indian Labour Codes
The 2022 Global Rights Index published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) points out the world’s worst countries and categories countries for workers on a rating of 1 (sporadic violation of rights) to 5+ (no guarantee of rights due to the breakdown of the rule of law). On this scale, India is a 5 – a country where workers are found to have no guarantee of any rights.
Now, India is bringing in 4 new Labour Codes to replace the existing 29 labour statutes, pointing to a formalization of the crony corporate, anti-worker mode of governance. The Index points to the most violated rights in the world. While the index points to some such violations in India, in fact, all these violations have already become a norm in the country, and are now being legalized by the legislation of Labour Codes.
- Increasing Criminalization of the Right to Strike
The Index finds severe restriction / ban of the right to strike in 129 out of 184 countries. Such a ban / restriction is being institutionalized in India with the introduction of the new Industrial Relations Code. The Code mandates 14 days’ notice prior to any strike, upon which conciliation proceedings are to be mandatorily initiated. However, the Code prohibits strikes during the pendency of conciliation. Hence, the right is gravely restricted and rendered ineffective because of the long wait and accompanied conditions. For illegal strikes, the Code permits heavy fines, imprisonment and also deregistration of trade unions.
- Erosion of Collective Bargaining
79% of all countries violated the right to collective bargaining as per the Index. In fact, in India, Rule 3 of the Industrial Relations (Central) Recognition of Negotiating Union or Negotiating Council and Adjudication of Disputes of Trade Unions Rules 2021 while providing a number of matters to be discussed by the negotiating union/council and the employer, it utterly fails to mention important matters including the employment or non-employment of any person, permanency of workers, overtime work and other such necessary matters. Rules 5 and 6 also formalises and legalises, hitherto illegal, unions sponsored by the managements. They also provide powers to the Managements from the appointment of verification officer to the preparation of the voters list and to the manner of verification. This is nothing but interference in the affairs of trade unions and also the curtailment of their freedom of association.
- Blocked and Excluded from Labour Protection
The Index notes that Countries which excluded workers from labour protections increased from 58% of countries in 2014 to 77% of countries in 2022. By enacting Labour Codes, the Government of India is formalising and legitimizing the increasing informalisation and exclusion of workers from the ambit of labour legislations. This takes the forms of increased thresholds of coverage, increased contractualisation and also by introducing a form called ‘fixed term employment’, etc., amongst several other mechanisms. Of course, the protections to the vast majority of unorganised workers continue to be mere eyewash, as in the Unorganised Worker Social Security Act, 2008.
- Restrictions on Access to Justice
The Global Rights Index notes that “In 97 countries out of 148, workers had no or reduced access to justice, and the due process of law and justice was denied. Trade union leaders were often detained and prosecuted on trumped-up charges, and their trials were frequently fraught with disregard for due process and with lack of impartiality.”
Importantly, in the Codes, the changing definition of the term ‘industry’ has wide implications on the access to justice, with workers from excluded establishments and industries being deprived of their legal rights. Such excluded establishments include religious establishments, charitable establishments, defense establishments and any other establishments that the Government chooses to notify.
The Industrial Relation Code also now brings changes in judicial set-up with administrative members now presiding over tribunals and hearing cases in the absence of a judicial member. Such administrative members are government appointees and members of the executive organ of the State and not the judiciary. Hence, they are political appointees whose action cannot be expected to fairly redress the violations by State.
The introduction of a strict limitation period for the raising of a dispute before the conciliation officer or industrial tribunal will result in a severe impact on the access to justice for workers, who are often delayed in approaching court. Till the enactment of Codes, Indian labour laws contemplated only holding of relief on account of delay and not outright rejection.
- De-registration of Unions
Shockingly, the 2022 Index notes that “Between April 2021 and March 2022, authorities impeded the registration of, deregistered or arbitrarily dissolved unions in 110 countries out of 148.” Now in India, such deregistration will be absolutely permissible with the coming in force of the IR Code, which allows for cancellation or withdrawal of registration of a union on any violation of the Code or the Rules or its own constitution or rules. For example, an illegal strike could now be grounds for cancellation of registration of the union. The lack of framed parameters regarding the nature of violation could also lead to entirely absurd, disproportionate and undesirable results – for example, the failure to inform the Registrar of a simple change in union rules could result in the registration of the union itself being liable to be cancelled! Effectively, the provision could be weaponised against unions that prove to be a challenge to State or corporate power.
- Attacks on Free speech and Assembly
Again, the Index notes a dramatic increase in the number of countries that restrict free speech and assembly (From 26% in 2014 to 41% of countries in 2022). In India, a fundamental right to freedom of protest has been derived by the Supreme Court from the fundamental rights to speech, assembly and to form associations and unions (Articles 19(1)(a-c) of the Constitution of India). However, in recent years, the same has been gravely restricted in capital cities. For example, pursuant to orders of the Karnataka High Court, all protests in Bengaluru city can only take place in a park called Freedom Park – which, ironically, detains protestors to a marginal location invisible to the public gaze. A similar situation exists in Mumbai and Delhi as well. Hence, the public rights of workers to seek redress are chipped away on one hand. On the other, the increasing insecurity of tenure and the lack of social security, both exacerbated and legitimized by the labour codes make it increasingly risky
- Violent Attacks on Workers and Murder of Trade Unionists
Across the world, the Index notes a rise in such incidents, with workers being arrested/ detained, exposed to violence and murdered in 69, 50, and 13 countries of 148 countries. So too, in India the weaponisation of law to clamp down on those who peacefully exercise their constitutional and statutory rights is only growing, and has been seen across the country. Challenges to various systems of oppression in society – including institutional casteism, communalism, patriarchy – face similar state repression. In the context of the class struggle, attacks on workers and union leaders have also become a commonplace.
The Codes reveal a real commitment to corporate plunder and suppression of rights of the working class. The increased penalties for worker violations versus the reduced penalties and mandatory compounding of offences for management violations makes this even more clear. Of course, even the implementing agencies, namely, the Inspectors, have now been converted into Inspectors-cum-facilitators, whose mandatory duty is now not to ensure prosecution for violation of law but to give the management an opportunity to comply. In this context, it is only to be expected that the struggle for rights of workers will meet the iron hand of the State – and the working class must rise with vigour and commitment to meet the new challenges ahead of it.